The Poker Game By Michael Leiman
The competition at the five paddleball courts off Carmine Street in Manhattan was ferocious. No one wanted to lose and all of us fought like mad, yelled like mad, disputed calls like mad, to avoid it. But, in the end, one team got to 15 before the other. The winner stayed on. The loser trudged to the sidelines to await their next chance.
And wait. And sometimes wait some more. The courts were not just ferocious. They were crowded. Sometimes the waits extended to ten games. And waiting was not something we were good at. We were competitive athletes and wanted to do something. Well, there was a bocce area behind the courts if you wanted to roll a ball. And there was a small softball field where you could kick a soccer ball. Or you could go to the store and get something to drink.
Billy Abolafia did none of those things. Billy was one of the characters at Carmine Street. Tall, powerfully built, with long, curly hair, he was a charismatic figure that drew people to him. He was also a gambler. He brought his cards and set up a poker game on the cement tables and wooden benches just a few feet beyond the courts. Losing players came to join in. I came to join in.
The game was quarter/half. Open for a quarter with three raises allowed. If someone showed a pair the betting began at 50 cents. Not a small amount of money in the late 1980s, but limited enough that no one could get badly hurt. Just a few dollars would change hands. Then Billy suggested that the very last bet go to a dollar. Hmmm, a dollar bet followed by three raises, that would make $4 on just one card. Hey, the game was getting interesting! Too interesting, that is, too remain at an outdoor table with strangers now watching with players that came and went whenever their turn on the courts came up, with dollar bills flying around and being blown by the wind. We took the game indoors. To the apartment on the far West Side that Billy shared with his girlfriend. Now the poker game wasn’t interrupted by anything. We’d play for hours; sometimes all night.
Thing had become serious. We were, after all, serious competitors. The quarters and half dollars disappeared. Now the game was $1/$2. At Billy’s suggestion, the final bet became $5, then $10. Raise that three times and…now we were talking REAL money!
We mostly played a silly game, however, Baseball. Baseball was generally a 7 card stud game…2 closed cards followed by 4 open cards with a bet on each one and concluding with one final card. Threes and nines were wild. An open four got you another card. Crazy! In my first night of playing I couldn’t figure out what a likely winning hand was. Until I did!
No way you could win with less than four jacks. You couldn’t feel confident with less than four aces. I built my strategy around that insight. I’d drop out early if it seemed improbable that my hand would be that good. I’d save my big money bets for the times my cards were likely winners. Billy was still the best player at the table but now I had a clear insight into the game.
Two things kept most everyone else from developing the same clarity. All our players came from Carmine Street, but not all of them were paddleball players. Two of them were the court’s drug dealers. Now call me naive, but I didn’t know we had drug dealers. But, apparently, we did. And they were nice guys. They brought their “product” to the table and it was free for anyone who wanted it. As was the beer. I partook of nothing. That gave me an awfully big advantage.
And then Anita Maldonado joined the game! I love Anita. She is an exciting, fun person who was also the reigning woman’s singles and doubles champion. She was among the fiercest competitors I’ve ever met. No lead over her was ever safe. She didn’t (and likely still doesn’t) know the meaning of give up. Her oft stated motto: “You’ve got to be in it to win it.” A GREAT attitude in sports. NOT a good one in poker where “you’ve got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em.” Leave a likely losing hand early and you drop a few bucks. Fight an unwinnable battle to the end and you can lose a lot! Anita, the drug dealers and a few others often fought to the bitter end.
My philosophy was different. Play sober, play conservative and go in big when I recognized my cards were likely the winner. The drug dealers brought lots of cash and they didn’t seem to mind when they lost it. They just seemed puzzled when their hands were nowhere close to what the winners held. To cheer them up I’d smile and remind them: “You’ve got to be in it to win it.” No matter their probability of winning, they remained in it!
In one memorable hand I was fighting it out with Anita. I held a couple of wild cards and bet strong. Anita, who didn’t seem to have much, stayed with me and then, towards the end, raised aggressively. My reading of the hand was that I was almost the sure winner but Anita’s strong bets scared me. I backed off, merely calling her at the end.
“What do you have?” I asked nervously.
“A pair of aces.”
“Aces?” I responded, incredulously. Maybe I’d heard wrong. “You have a pair of aces?”
“Yeah, aces. What do you have?”
“Four kings,” I replied, pulling in all the chips. Wow!
My gosh, how could she have stayed in with aces? A game with a million wild cards and you’re in with aces? And then of course I remembered: “You’ve got to be in it to win it.”
And that’s how, though I did not win all the time at Carmine I certainly did at Billy’s!
The losing, however, was not good for the drug dealers. One of them, Larry, called and asked me for a $1000 loan to help him buy “product.” He’d pay me back in a week along with an extra hundred. I declined. I’d turned my back on the opportunity to get into the drug racket!
The game went on without the out of funds drug dealers, but it had grown crazy. Somehow the allowable bet on the last card had morphed to $100. Three raises could bring that to $400. None of us could afford that kind of money. One night I won close to $1000 but went home with $125 and a pocketful of IOUs.
A non-Carmine Street guy joined the game. His name was Mike. His nickname was Psycho. Psycho Mike. I soon discovered why. When he learned that I was a psychotherapist he accused me of cheating by reading people’s minds. I learned from Billy that Psycho Mike generally carried a gun. I did the math: Big money, cocaine, a weapon and paranoia added to a combination I didn’t want to deal with.
The Poker Game was over for me!
Bobby Schwarz Legend of the Game By Andy Krosnick
I’m writing this as a first hand witness, in my educated opinion, and someone who has played with the two greatest players the game has known! Baseball purists know that Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb were the greatest baseball players without argument! In our sport of one wall paddleball, the names of Bobby Schwarz and Robert Sostre, are a cut above all others!!
WITH THAT SAID, I am writing this testimony about my longtime partner, Bobby Schwarz. Bobby first played in tournament competition with his brother Richie Schwarz, who was also a great player. As brothers sometimes do, their opinions and their on court strategies, didn’t always click. And after just one tournament, they parted ways as a team. Hence, I arrived onto the scene. I was lucky enough to have played with Bobby on a recreational level, and we did exceptionally well together. Bobby and I first played in the American Paddleball Association’s Fall Open Tournament, in October of 1972, at the Brighton Beach Bathes’ Club in Brooklyn. There were 254 teams competing!! No one knew who we were. We made it all the way to the finals!! We played the future Hall of Fame team of Howie Hammer and John Bruschi. We lost. And without going into the particulars, we learned a great deal from our first tournament together.
RATHER THEN take you on a sentimental journey through our history together, I will simply tell you, as Bobby’s partner, I observed a great deal about this man, as a great competitor, who was relentless in his pursuit to victory. Bobby was a Triple Threat. He was an outstanding offensive machine who had the arsenal to back him in the form of a powerful right hand, and a very consistent left hand. He would pound you to the point of getting a setup, and then without mercy, kill it, and end the rally. But his ability to be a defensive player was almost equaled to his offensive side. He had a remarkable anticipation sense that would give him an advantage over most opponents. The third thing he possessed, was his determination, and his ability to be a master strategist. That and along with the highest level of sportsmanship, all combined into one package!! One phenomenal athlete!!
BOBBY SCHWARZ accomplished a great many accolades in his paddleball career. Unfortunately I cannot list them, nor can Bobby. During Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012, Bobby’s entire trophy room was destroyed by floods. They were all destroyed!! It’s safe to say, Bobby had well over a hundred titles, from Singles, to Doubles, to Mixed Doubles. Bobby was the First player in the history of the game to win the Triple Crown of Paddleball Competition!! He did this at least THREE TIMES that I can remember!
AS I SAID, opening this tribute to Bobby, I was fortunate to have played and won with him. I am very lucky to have played with him. Had we never played together, I would never have accomplished any of the tournament victories I have!
IN EVERY ERA, there is always one standout player. Whether it’s Howie Hammer, Bobby Schwarz, or Robert Sostre, there’s always that one player who is heads and tails above the rest. During the Golden Years of Paddleball, Bobby Schwarz led the field!!
On a personal note, I was honored to have competed with; been friends with; shared life experiences with, this Legend, Bobby Schwarz!!
Let’s go back to 1971 when paddleball was starting to take off at the city playgrounds, up in the Catskills, in Florida and the many beach clubs in the NYC area. It was played with wooden paddles and a “555” handball. The man who was at the forefront of the flourishing game was Howie Hammer. He and his partner John Bruschi unquestionably comprised the best doubles team in the game, having won the recent American Paddleball Association championship. Besides being a great player, Howie truly wanted to help the game grow. He wrote a book, taught the game in college, and during this summer he assembled a touring crew of top players. The group included John, Steve Rothfeld and Dennis Majorino. They visited the beach clubs and other venues, conducting mini-clinics and playing exhibitions against the best of the local players. On July 25th, the show came to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach Baths (BBB), which contained Garber Stadium. I was there and what happened was amazing.
BBB had many fine wooden wall courts plus one showcase court in Garber Stadium. The bleacher seats that surrounded the court could accommodate perhaps a thousand people, and they were packed that day. Though the Garber court was a true-bounce, well maintained court, it was unlike any other paddleball court in that the wooden wall was super live and very prone to killers staying down.
The program started with a match between Steve Rothfeld and Dennis Majorino vs. two BBB kids, Anthony Cirillo, age 16, and Hank Grassi Jr.,15. Most of you remember or have heard about Steve, who went on to become one of the best players in the game. He was in his early twenties at the time and already a terrific player. Dennis, also in his twenties, was every bit Steve’s equal. Unfortunately, he did not stay with the game and sadly has since passed away, far too young. Who would have thought that the two kids could even give Steve and Dennis a game? Well, they gave them all they could handle in a thrilling match, finally going down 21-17. The crowd loved it!
But that just whetted the appetite for the fans for the excitement that was to come. The feature match pitted Howie and John against Peter Grassi, Hankie’s 17 year old brother, and their Dad, Hank Grassi Sr., who was 45 at the time. It’s ironic that in the present paddleball era, 45 is actually young, but back in those days, Hank Sr., who was a very good, steady player, was considered old. Peter was a kid, inexperienced as far as playing top competition and an unknown in the paddleball world. Howie and John were in their early 30s, highly skilled, in their prime – the very best in the game.
The game started off as expected, with Howie and John taking an 8-3 lead. They were playing well and Peter was cold. The champs seemed destined to an easy win. Peter related to me what occurred next. Hank told Peter, who was playing the left side, that they should switch sides. Peter “insubordinated” his Dad and told him “Absolutely not!” At the same time, Peter, who was accustomed to playing shirtless and had been wearing a borrowed jersey, decided to toss the shirt. Why had he been wearing it? Peter told me that prior to the game, Howie had asked him to wear a shirt to add “class” to the game. From that point on, Peter caught fire with an incredible offensive display of killers. He was literally unstoppable, in an unconscious zone. By one account, he hit 17 kill shots total for the game! They beat the best team in paddleball 21-12!
How could this happen? In retrospect, Peter and Hank had a home court advantage. They were accustomed to this uniquely live court and Howie and John were not. I recall that the following year, the APA tournament was held at BBB, which Howie and John won, the final match was not played at Garber, but on one of the side courts. I believe that Howie requested this. Another factor in the Grassi win was the vocal support of the home crowd. But the most significant reason was that Peter, despite his youth and inexperience in top competition, was a terrific, super-confident, steady and aggressive offensive player. Perhaps he was too young to get nervous and become overwhelmed by the event. He recalled that he truly believed he was going to win and even told this to a friend before the game. I’m certain Howie and John underestimated Peter’s ability.
Immediately after the game Howie grabbed the megaphone and started the paddleball clinic. To paraphrase his first line: “I think I’m going to let Peter run the clinic!”
Who is Peter Grassi? Peter started playing paddleball at age 10 at the Brooklyn’s Raven Hall and then Washington Baths. When these beach clubs closed, he moved on with his family to Brighton Beach Baths and he absolutely loved it. Except for playing some in Manhattan Beach during the 2 month off-season (BBB was open 10 months), he never traveled to play among the other players in the city. He did play against many fine players at BBB and was always one of the best. Peter is probably the only player to ever use the Knight Official Tournament Paddle, which he originally bought from a street vendor. One story he related to me was about the day Victor Niederhoffer came to the beach club to play paddleball and he challenged Peter to a singles game, spotting him 5 points in a 25 point game. Peter beat him by 6 points, probably enabling some fellow BBB’ers to win some wagers. (Peter did not bet!) Niederhoffer at the time was the number one squash player in the US and also the former paddleball singles and doubles champ. (You can look it up!) When the beach club closed in 1997, Peter pretty much stopped playing paddleball.
Hank Sr. was an excellent athlete who was also terrific in four wall paddleball, paddle tennis and handball. He passed away in 2016 at age 90. Hankie did not stick with paddleball, but was, and is, a great racquet athlete, excelling in tennis, racquetball, paddle tennis and pickleball.
July 25th, 1971 was a great day for paddleball. Fortunately, in addition to the memories, we have some terrific photos. Be sure to check them out!
I Got Next!??
“I got next!”, the slogan of the PFA, has a different meaning in Midland Beach, Staten Island. A player can’t simply pick the court and partner he or she likes and wait it out until it’s time to get on (zzzzz….). Is this unfair? Maybe. But Staten Island has long had its unique system of playground paddleball that has spanned generations and it has remained intact, just like when it started in the ’70’s! And I think the advantages make it terrific. This is how it works:
The three pillars of the system are fast scoring, rotational courts and “you don’t pick your own partner”. Fast scoring means a point is scored by either team when it wins a rally, not just when serving. Rotational is more complicated. I’ll describe the rotational system as applied with 18 players and 4 available courts:
- Courts 1, 2, 3 and 4 are designated. Usually the “best” court (most often favorable sun conditions) is Court 1, and the others ranked accordingly.
- Games on each court start at the same time.
- After all four games are concluded, the winners of Court 1 stay on this court. The winners of the other games advance to the next court and the losers drop down to the lower court. In other words, the next game on Court 2 is played with the losers of Court 1 against the winners of Court 3. The losers of the last Court (4), drop out and have next and the 2 players who waited during the first game come on to Court 4 against the losers of Court 3.
- If a winning team decides to drop out, the losing team stays on (if on Court 1) or advances as though they won (other courts). All other teams advance one notch.
The number of courts played on obviously depends on the number of players available. Games are formed based on arrival times of players. With less than 18 players, the most amount of players waiting for next is 3.
How does “you don’t pick your own partner” work?
Partners are matched up in the order that they arrive at the courts. The first two play together, second two together, and so on. An odd person waits for the next person to arrive. If two people arrive together, and there is an odd person waiting, they flip a coin to determine who plays with the odd person. (This means that if you plan to arrive with your regular partner in order to play together, you have only a 50% chance of teaming up with your buddy.). Additionally: If you lose on the last court and only 1 person has next, you flip with your partner to see who goes back on the last court to play with him or her. If a player drops out, and the partner wants to continue playing, the remaining player must play with the next person waiting to play.
When the system is up and running, new players who arrive can say “I got next!”, but they can have next only on the last court and they must go to the end of the line behind any players waiting. As teams lose on the last court, they go to the end of the line as well. If no one is waiting, the losers of the last court go back on to this court. If there are more than approximately 3 players waiting for next, “The List” is created. Players sign in and play in the proper order. Again, since you don’t pick your own partner, teams are configured based on the order of the players waiting.
That’s it in a nutshell. Does it always work exactly like this? Of course not! I’ll go over some of the variations afterward, but first let’s discuss why this system has served Staten Island well over the decades.
The advantage of fast scoring in conjunction with rotational lies in the fact that when the games all start together they all end within minutes of each other. With regular scoring, a game can last anywhere between 10 and 45 minutes. With such a variation, the rotational system would not work with regular scoring because the dead time between games is compounded among all the players. But the rotational system combined with fast scoring makes for clean, crisp action with minimal dead time.
“You don’t pick your own partner” also greatly reduces dead time. In almost every park outside of Staten Island, you come down to the courts and check out the games and decide where you want to play based on who is playing, the wait time and the level of competition. You say “I got next!” and it’s “I”, not “we”. You are not obligated to play with the other waiting players. You can play with your regular partner who arrives at the last minute or came off another court while you were waiting. You can even pick a loser from the game you are waiting for! If there are 5 people waiting, you may wait 5 games. This means more and more dead time and it can create some animosity for people not chosen.
Yes, the better players often want to have their “elite” game, but with fast scoring, rotational and “you don’t pick your own partner”, Court 1 in short order becomes an elite court and it’s quite an achievement to have a winning streak there as “King of the Court”. Plus, you put in lots more playing time and play many more games against different players in the course of a day.
What are some of the variations and sources of discontent?
Three waiting. When 3 people have next we usually will declare “3 on”, meaning the losers from the next to last court flip to determine who must sit, thus allowing 3 players come on to play on the last court. This is often not popular with the player who lost the flip.
Incompatible partners. Accommodations will occasionally be made in situations where two players would rather not play together, such as 2 lefties.
Must play together. This could happen if a player brings a friend or relative to the courts who is inexperienced or unfamiliar with the other players. He or she may be allowed to play with this person. Or perhaps two players who are getting ready to play together in a tournament will be accommodated.
Finagling for partners. In order to circumvent the “you don’t pick your own partner” rule, all sorts of finagling sometimes takes place. Other players don’t always take it with a smile.
The elitists. The theme of this system is that everyone at the park plays together. There is no “A” “B” or “C” game. Some players are not entirely happy with this and have “broken away” at times.
The arguers. Some players are notorious for prolonging games by engaging in repeated disputes during play (no names mentioned here!). This prolongs the game and the problem is compounded by upsetting the rhythm of the rotational system, which affects everyone.
Change to regular scoring. While fast scoring is fine and trust me, you get used to it, the paddleball purists sometimes prefer regular scoring. Years ago, when the games started early in the morning, 12 noon marked the switch to regular scoring. At that point many of the players had departed and this usually worked well because all agreed to play “long”. However present day, the games start later and once in awhile, two teams about to play will “play long” without telling anyone. This is not good! Obviously dead time is increased. Proper etiquette at Midland Beach dictates that the decision to play long should be mutually agreeable to all.
When did you get here? Here’s a good one: Is time of arrival determined when you park your car or when you emerge through the gate on to the court proper? Also, there are 3 entrances to the Midland Beach courts, and without the benefit of instant slo-mo replays it is sometimes difficult to know who arrived first. Sometimes we need to ask for an outside call on these.
Well that’s it. Maybe this system isn’t for everyone. However it has proven to be successful and survived literally for generations. If you come to the courts to hang out and socialize, the Staten Island system may not be for you. But if you come for continuous action, I think you’ll like it! Despite its drawbacks, I believe the advantages outweigh them. Other paddleball groups should consider adopting our system.
I got next!??